Last night I went to a talk by American foreign policy analyst Walter Russell Mead, who made a compelling case that the twenty-first century will be another “American century”. He argued there were five reasons why the United States was well positioned for the century to come. First, there was now the real prospect of energy independence and of low energy prices that will boost the US economy. Second, as a Pacific power with good neighbours, the US has an advantageous geopolitical location. Third, the US is in a good demographic position relative to other developed countries. Fourth, America is uniquely adaptable and as a result “gets to the future faster than other countries”. Fifth, other powers that some see usurping the US, such as China, have huge problems of their own.
Mead’s optimism about the American future was particularly striking because it came the day after the third debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Many European commentators have seen the debate, which focused on foreign policy, as an illustration of the reality of American decline. Carne Ross, a former British diplomat, tweeted that “this debate will go down in history as one of the moments where it is tacitly confessed that the US is a lesser power”. Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland agreed with Ross. Writing for the New York Review of Books, he said that the debate showed an “America whose world is slowly shrinking”. It was, as the title of his piece put it, the night America forgot the world.
It is true that the horizons of the debate were rather narrow. Obama and Romney focused on a handful of countries above all the Middle East (especially Iran) and China (to which Obama remarkably referred as an “adversary”). Europe was mentioned only once in passing (and the UK twice). Even when they spoke about the Middle East and China, the two candidates seemed to have domestic constituencies on their minds. “This really wasn’t a debate about foreign policy or world affairs”, wrote former State Department head of policy planning Anne-Marie Slaughter. “It was the projection of the American electoral map onto the globe.” But weren’t US presidential elections always like this? They nearly always focus on the economy and rest of the world features only when it is a problem – hence the focus on the Middle East and China on Monday night.
It is also true that the tone of the debate was somewhat defensive. Ross was struck by the two candidates’ lack of ambition and imagination: the hawkish rhetoric of democracy promotion that dominated the Bush era seemed to have been replaced by what Ross called “retrenchment, defensiveness and caution”. Obama had already campaigned against neoconservatism, and in particular against the Iraq war, in 2004; on Monday night Romney was also remarkably dovish and talked a lot about “peace” rather than "freedom". But is this new tone – which presumably someone like Freedland would welcome – really evidence of American decline? I don’t think so. I agree with Joe Nye that although American power is declining in relative terms as other powers such as China rise, it is not in absolute decline.
What does seem to be happening, as my colleague Justin Vaïsse argues in his excellent analysis, is that the US is entering a more introverted and perhaps even isolationist phase (though Mead argues that the perceived Chinese threat will limit this). In particular, after Afghanistan and Iraq, it is becoming more reluctant to use military force. In fact, as Vaïsse suggests, there were echoes in the debate of George McGovern’s 1972 exhortation to “Come home, America”. Of course, this post-Vietnam introversion was followed in the 1980s by Reagan. Thus this historic parallel suggests that the debate was evidence not so much of long term American decline as of a particular moment in an American foreign-policy cycle that oscillates between interventionism and isolationism.
26th October 2012 at 02:10am
Using the presidential debates as a barometer of American strength abroad displays a fundamental misunderstanding of American politics. Simply put, the debates mean absolutely nothing. They are political theater intended for an American electoral audience. In the case of American foreign policy, it is better to judge the deed rather than the word. Make no mistake, these ‘debates’ are only ‘words.’
26th October 2012 at 05:10pm
I would agree with Cean above, the debates are pretty much circus, designed to pander to a populace that isn’t necessarily interested in foreign affairs. But there remains, as always, a significant minority in the leadership who know better and are taking care of business. They don’t need debates, and probably don’t watch, as I don’t!
Your message will be submitted to a moderator before appearing online. Name and email address are required, all other fields are optional. Your email will not be displayed.Commenting is not available in this channel entry.
What next for China's military-industrial complex?
A crisis “made in China”
What does the end of "managed democracy" mean for Europe?
A diplomatic strategy for the conflict in Syria
Europeans are losing faith in the EU
Europe can rescue the two-state solution
27 countries in search of a proper security strategy
How Europe can help Egypt
Understanding the influence of the Gulf States
A new era for EU-Georgia relations?
What next for Egypt, Tunisia and Libya?